6 Common Causes Of Obesity In Teens, Its Symptoms And Treatment

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Obesity in teens is a complex metabolic health problem that could be caused by a combination of factors. Generally, the condition isn’t life-threatening, but it can lead to several chronic health issues, such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes, in the long run. Over time, these chronic health problems may affect a teen’s growth, development, and overall life quality.

As a parent, you may feel worried about this scenario. But thankfully, timely intervention can help teens lose excess weight and improve their overall health.

This post tells you about the possible causes, diagnoses, and treatments for teen obesity and effective ways to prevent it.

When Is A Teen Categorized As Obese?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a teen with a BMI at or above 95th percentile for the same age and gender is considered obese (1). BMI or body mass index is one’s weight in kilograms divided by height in meters square (kg/m2).

To determine a teen’s percentile, you need to calculate their BMI and plot it on the CDC’s growth chart. Below is the interpretation of the BMI percentiles in terms of weight category.

Percentile Range For BMI

Weight categoryPercentile range
UnderweightLess than 5th percentile
Normal or healthy5th percentile to less than 85th percentile
Overweight85th percentile to less than 95th percentile
Obese95th percentile or greater

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Note: BMI cannot determine the quantity of body fat. If precise body fat levels are desired, then BMI should be correlated with direct methods of body fat assessment, such as skinfold thickness measurement, bioelectrical impedance (BIA), and dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA).

Once a teen’s weight category is known, determining the possible causes for excess weight gain is necessary to take corrective measures.

What Are The Possible Causes Of Teen Obesity?

Teenage obesity has a complex etiology and involves several causative factors (2).

  1. Genetics: According to research, 40 to 77 percent of weight variation happens due to genetic inheritance (3). Genes not only govern one’s body composition but also alter food intake by influencing hunger and satiety. Mostly, obesity occurs due to the complex interaction of genes and environmental factors such as diet and physical activity (4).
  1. Unhealthy eating habits: In the US, 19 percent of individuals between the ages of two and 19 years are obese (5). The major reason for it is an increase in the intake of high-calorie foods rich in saturated fats, salt, and sugar (6). Besides, most teens don’t follow good dietary practices. For instance, fewer than one in ten US teens eat recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables (5). In the majority of children, unhealthy eating tends to be the biggest contributor to their obesity.

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  1. Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity may contribute more to weight gain than a high-calorie diet (7). A significant reason why teens stay sedentary is an increase in overall screen time, which is likely to increase sugary drinks consumption and decrease physical activity (8).
  1. Improper sleep: Research shows that sleep deprivation can cause weight gain. Teens who go late to bed, sleep for shorter durations, and have poor sleep quality tend to consume extra calories, resulting in obesity (9) (10).
  1. Stress: Chronic stress raises the risk of overweight and obesity in teens (11). Several teens indulge in stress-related binge eating of high-calorie foods such as chocolate and ice cream. Stress may also increase the risk of improper sleep and substance abuse, which in turn may contribute to obesity (12).
  1. Underlying health condition: Cushing’s syndrome, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), and hypothyroidism are some endocrine disorders that can cause overweight or obesity, irrespective of other factors (13). Genetic conditions, such as leptin-receptor deficiency and certain medications used for treating mood disorders or insomnia, could also cause obesity in teens (14).

Besides these, socioeconomic issues and slow metabolism could also lead to obesity in teens.

What Are The Possible Complications Of Teenage Obesity?

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Obesity can increase the risk of a range of medical complications, which could affect a teen’s long-term physical and mental health (15) (16) (17).

  • High cholesterol levels leading to high blood pressure, both of which are high-risk factors for heart diseases
  • High sugar levels due to insulin resistance, which over time, develops into type-2 diabetes. If not managed correctly, diabetes could cause other health issues, such as kidney problems.
  • Joint problems, such as osteoarthritis, in which the joints grow weak due to stress caused by the extra weight
  • Sleep apnea in which the breathing suddenly stops for a brief duration, hindering sleep. Other breathing problems, such as asthma, may also develop due to obesity.
  • Depression and anxiety that develops over time due to low self-esteem and poor confidence A negative self-image could make a teen feel socially disconnected, leading to isolation.
  • Asthma control is more difficult in obese individuals with more frequent episodes of symptoms.

Besides these, obesity increases the risk of a host of other health problems, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

What Are The Symptoms Of Obesity In Teens?

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The appearance of excessive body fat is the main symptom of obesity. Some other common symptoms of obesity that may be noticeable in a teen are (15):

  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Skin folds around the abdomen and back of the shoulders
  • Stretch marks on the hips, thighs, and abdomen
  • Dark skin folds and creases around the neck, groin, and armpit. It is also known as acanthosis nigricans.
  • Gynecomastia, a condition in which the accumulation of fatty tissues occurs around the nipple and breast area in males

What Is The Treatment Of Obesity In Teens?

Treatment plans for obesity depend on the teen’s symptoms, age, overall health condition, and severity of obesity. The comprehensive treatment plan for obesity typically includes (15) (16):

  1. Diet counseling: A certified nutritionist plans a diet based on the teen’s age, weight loss aim, and health condition. The plan includes meal suggestions with portions, specific nutrients, and foods to avoid. Regular follow-ups could be required to make dietary modifications when needed.
  1. Exercise planning: An exercise expert helps plan an exercise or workout routine based on the teen’s age, weight, health, time availability, and interest. Just as diet, exercise planning also has time-bound weight loss targets reviewed periodically. Changes in frequency and exercise/activity type happen as per the weight loss pattern.

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  1. Behavioral therapy: Individual or group behavioral therapy may help teens discuss their feelings about weight and other developmental issues with a mental health expert. Venting out emotions and feelings can help teens feel less stressed, develop positive self-esteem, and work positively towards a healthy weight loss.

Teens with severe obesity (morbid obesity) may be advised to follow other treatment modalities, such as medications and bariatric or weight loss surgery. These treatment methods could be followed up with other traditional weight loss methods. Medication and surgery are very rarely needed in the teenage population. This is a mostly preventable condition if intervention is early enough.

How To Prevent Obesity In Adolescents?

Preventing obesity is possible through improvement in a teen’s diet and lifestyle. Below are some tips that you could try to keep your teen’s weight in check.

  1. Don’t just focus on your teen. Instead, make healthy dietary and lifestyle changes for the entire family. It will keep the teen constantly motivated to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. Obesity tends to occur in more than one individual in the household. Even though genetics might play a role, the biggest contributing factor is the household routines when it comes to food choices and sedentary lifestyle.
  1. Be a role model for your teen and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. It will help your teen understand that healthy eating and leading an active lifestyle are ideal ways of life.
  1. Encourage physical activity by indulging in exercise or active play with your teen. Children and teens between six and 17 years should get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day (18).
  1. Try to limit screen time and instead guide your teen to indulge in active play or constructive activity that could keep them moving instead of staying sedentary.
  1. Limit the intake of refined grains. Instead, encourage your teen to eat whole-grains and cereals, such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice.
  1. Avoid high-fat, high-sugar processed foods. Instead, consume a lot of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Aim to eat five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day.
  1. Replace fruit juices, soda, and soft drinks with fat-free or low-fat milk. You can also offer fresh coconut water, lemon water, and homemade ginger ale to teens.
  1. Keep healthy snacks in the refrigerator or over the kitchen counter so that the teen can easily access them. Some options to offer are fresh fruit and vegetable salad, air-popped popcorn, and multigrain crackers or granola bars.
  1. Maintain a healthy sleep-wake routine so that the body gets ample time to rest and rejuvenate. It will keep obesity in check and also help improve a teen’s focus and concentration.

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  1. Talk to your teen and help them handle their socioemotional concerns that cause behavioral issues and eating disorders, such as binge eating.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Should a teenager worry about their weight?

Teens are usually self-conscious about their weight, and it may lead to a negative body image, affecting their self-confidence (19). If your teen is within the healthy weight range, you must encourage them not to worry about their weight. Obese and overweight teens can be encouraged to lose weight in healthy ways.

2. Which teens are at risk for obesity?

The factors that may increase a teen’s risk of developing obesity include their genetics, metabolism, socioeconomic status, and lifestyle choices (20). Several changes or combinations of attributes within these factors may ultimately influence the teen’s unhealthy weight gain, which leads to obesity over time.

Obesity in teens is not uncommon. Teen obesity can be caused by genetic inheritance, unhealthy eating habits, lack of physical activity, stress or anxiety, sleeping disorders, or underlying conditions such as PCOS or hypothyroidism. Teenage obesity may sometimes lead to chronic health issues like diabetes or hypertension. It also increases the risk of complications like high cholesterol, high sugar, or joint problems like osteoarthritis. You can prevent obesity in your teen by encouraging them to engage in physical activities, avoiding processed foods, and maintaining a healthy diet and sleep-wake routine.

Key Pointers

  • According to CDC, teens with BMI at 95 percentile or more are considered obese.
  • Teenage obesity is primarily due to genetics but can also result from an unhealthy lifestyle or underlying health issues.
  • Obese teens may struggle to breathe during physical activities or develop stretch marks and darkened skin in the creases.
  • Consult your child’s doctor for appropriate treatment since obesity can cause complications such as diabetes, high pressure, and depression.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Defining Childhood Obesity; CDC
2. Obesity in Teens; University of Rochester Medical Center
3. Genetics and Obesity; IntechOpen
4. Behavior, environment, and genetic factors all have a role in causing people to be overweight and obese; CDC
5. Poor Nutrition; CDC
6. Magdalena Zalewska and Elżbieta Maciorkowska; Selected nutritional habits of teenagers associated with overweight and obesity; NCBI
7. Lack of exercise, not diet, linked to rise in obesity, Stanford research shows; Stanford Medicine
8. Smartphone, tablet use linked with obesity in teens; Harvard T.H. Chan
9. Sleep Deprivation and Obesity; Harvard T.H. Chan
10. Jean-Philippe and Caroline Dutil; Lack of sleep as a contributor to obesity in adolescents: impacts on eating and activity behaviors; NCBI
11. Individual Stress Linked To Adolescent Obesity; Science Daily
12. Anne Jääskeläinen et al.; Stress-related eating, obesity and associated behavioural traits in adolescents: a prospective population-based cohort study; BMC
13. Jocelyne G Karam and Samy I McFarlane; Secondary causes of obesity; Open Access Journals
14. Prescription Medications & Weight Gain; Obesity Action Coalition
15. Obesity in Adolescents; Texas Children’s Hospital
16. Obesity in Teens; Nationwide Children’s Hospital
17. Obesity: Medical complications; About Kids Health
18. How much physical activity do children need?; CDC
19. Dieting: Information for teens; National Library of Medicine
20. Obesity in Teens; University of Rochester Medical Center
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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist, a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) and a toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different...
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Dr. Wayne Hough

(MBChB, MMed, FC Paeds)
Dr. Wayne Hough is a pediatrician currently based in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town in South Africa. He got his medical degree from the University of Stellenbosch. He then worked at the Tygerberg Children's Hospital before completing his pediatric training and qualification from the South African College of Medicine. Dr. Hough also holds a MMed degree in pediatrics from...
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